30 years ago, Matt Black and Jon More met on the mixtape and rare-groove scenes in London and formed Coldcut as a rolling music, technology, art and politics project.
They had enormous hits in 1988 with ‘Doctorin’ the House’ and ‘The Only Way Is Up (under the guise of the Plastic Population), both featuring Yazz, and ‘People Hold On’ with Lisa Stansfield in 1989, going through the major label system and being handled by Big Life, the same management firm as Wham! among others.
This dalliance with the mainstream (and pressure to write more chart hits) did not agree with them and, once free of their contractual ties, Black and More moved towards self-contained independence, setting up label Ninja Tune in 1991, primarily as a way to release their own music.
It quickly became home to likeminded acts – such as Amon Tobin, Bonobo, Cinematic Orchestra, DJ Food, Kid Koala, Roots Manuva, Wiley and Thundercat to name just a few over the years – and remains one of the most innovative and restless independent labels in the world.
The story of Coldcut’s music runs in parallel with the story of Coldcut’s embracing of new technology, from the early days where they had to bend it to their will, to the point now where tech is finally catching up with their vision.
Their biography on the Ninja Tune site says, “The problem with Coldcut is that, despite their veteran status, they act like two unruly children who just won’t sit still.” This is partly down to ther backgrounds; Black was a computer programmer and More was an art teacher and so Coldcut is really a space where both those passions are fused and indulged.
Music Ally spoke to Coldcut about a career reacting to technology and using it in their art as well as the move to build their own hardware and software to better achieve their own goals.
Where did your interest in technology begin?
Matt Black: “I was really into it from an early age. I grew up in the era of the moon landings. I used to love collecting funky robot toys. I got into science early on and got into sci-fi. I started messing around with stuff and I was a little proto-geek. My uncle gave me a music centre with a cassette player, a little deck and a radio. I remember cutting a speaker off and putting a bulb in there and getting it to flash as the music played. Audio-visualisation!
That led on to buying electronics magazines like Practical Electronics. My mate and I decided we would build a synthesizer each – a Mini Sonic 2. This was in 1974 or 1975. He was better at soldering and was more into it. He took the design from Practical Electronics and start to modify it by putting in these extras switches. I have to thank him for that idea that you could take something and you could modify it.
I taught myself to code out of an electronics magazine. It was very difficult to get any computer time in those days, but I learned to code. That was the genesis of my interest in technology. I used to go and see bands, but I was as much interested in the flashing red lights and the hardware as I was in the guys on stage. I remember seeing Brian Eno on Top Of The Pops with his synth and thinking that I wanted to do that for a living.
[After university] I was offered a job in Logica in the finance section. I went to an open day there but I chanced upon the communications department. There was a guy there playing video on the screen and it looked like it was playing from a record. I asked how they did that. He said they could record it on and then he could send the video down the phone line by just sending the part of the picture that changed.
I had never heard anything like that. It was mind blowing. I asked them and they got me a transfer to the comms department. It was a really generous move by the company. Otherwise I would now be very rich and would have made a fortune writing financial computing software. My life would have been very different.
Jon was on Kiss from an early stage when it was full pirate station. He told me to send him a demo tape. My demo tape was ‘Say Kids What Time Is It?’ [which became Coldcut’s debut single] so I got the job. Gordon Mac, the boss of the station, give me my own slot and I used it on my own show – The Mastermix Dance Party. After Coldcut took off, Jon and I realised it would be better to join forces on Kiss and have one show. That became Solid Steel.”
What did you want to achieve with Solid Steel?
Jon More: “We’d do this thing called the Alien Sphinx – which was a two-hour show on Kiss when they didn’t have any adverts. Sometimes Gordon Mac would move adverts either forwards or backwards into other shows. That allowed us a two-hour mix show.”
Matt Black: “As radio listeners ourselves, we were never into those DJs who talked over the records. And adverts were even worse. With a two-hour and advert-free wipe, you could really go on a journey. You could go quite deep without interruption. As music lovers and stoners ourselves, we appreciated that ability to trance out for a chunk of time.”
Jon More: “We also joined forces with Strictly Kev and PC, who were part of DJ Food and the DJ posse when we played at the Blue Note club. It was a show and tell. There was also a slightly competitive element between us.”
How did you go professional?
Jon More: “We signed to Big Life, run by Jazz Summers – whose book I actually just bought in a charity shop, reduced to £1.99. Like all of us. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes!”
Matt Black: “Bargain bin to bargain bin!”
Jon More: “Jazz used to say, “There are a lot of sharks out there.” We would then say, “Yes, and some of them are vegetarian.” He was into macrobiotics. To cut through swathes of bullshit in the industry, sometimes you need people like that. If you were with him, you were fine. If you were not with him, see you later, goodbye. He put 16 grand into a video for ‘Doctorin’ The House’.”
Matt Black: “I think it was an extra ten grand so that we could have a big clock for ‘Say Kids What Time Is It?’ as he was prepared to invest in us.”
Jon More: “Here was this weird record at that point in time. House music hadn’t really crossed over at that point. The track was shot full of samples. There was a belief there and support until we decided to stop making records that sounded like ‘The Only Way Is Up’ and ‘Doctorin’ The House’ – and then things changed! Was there pressure put on us to keep repeating the magic formula? It was subtle at first.
There was a lack of commitment to us, we felt. There was a lack of commitment to things that were beginning to interest us – from both the label and management. That desire to move forward with technology – all of those things were there at that point. But they didn’t get it. They believed us about house music, but they couldn’t understand what we were saying about technology, graphics and videos.”
How did your experiences in the label system inform how you treated acts on Ninja?
Jon More: “What I think was important to take from our experience with both Arista and Big Life was the profligate nature of the record industry with the artists’ money. They were biking stuff to us when we could quite easily hop over to the office up and pick it up. I looked at our accounts and I think the bike bill for that year was 12 and a half grand or something.
That’s when we started to realise that things were going wrong here. It was only later that we discovered that Big Life employed their own bike guy and then re-charged it against artist accounts that we started to see how this trickle-down economy worked.”
Matt Black: “The idea of the 50/50 deal was something that we always liked because it seemed fair. Equal partnership and equal motivation. Jon and I use the same arrangement between ourselves. Early on we had started to argue over who had done what on all the records and then we thought, fuck it, anything that was Coldcut would be split 50/50.
It would be equal no matter who did what. We are still working together 30 years later when a lot of partnerships have split up. We work separately most of the time, but we have managed to have an accord that works.
Big Life would give us our accounts and it would just be some very badly photocopied sheets of very dense and tiny type in really bad quality with just these massive lists of figures of all these charges. It had been prepared on a computer, but there was no computerised version. It was literally just a pad of paper.
We’d look at it and try and figure out if we actually took that taxi or if we were in that studio. It was too much. When we audited Big Life a few years later, our auditor concluded that they owed £300,000. We never got it.”
Jon More: “It was a hard learning curve. They were withholding stuff against sales returns, for example, but never liquidating that withholding. All sorts of things like that.”
Matt Black: “I remember being in a meeting with Jazz and our auditor and Jazz really abusing this guy going [sneery voice], “Who’s the biggest idiot in this room then?” Just trying to really crush the guy – which he did quite successfully in so far as we never got that money. That was not good.
After a dose of that we decided we were going to do it ourselves again. We had started off quite successfully and this is why Big Life had been attracted to us. Jazz did invest money in us, but he already saw these two guys were selling 3,000 12-inches out of the back of Jon’s van just in London.”
Jon More: “That was more than any of their artists were selling at the time with their massive campaigns.”
Matt Black: “I think he realised there was value in Coldcut.”
Jon More: “Effectively we were sold to Polydor. That whole thing left a pretty nasty taste in our mouth due to dubious lawyer advice and all sorts of record company shenanigans. Then we got Arista to buy us out of Big Life/Polydor – because they wanted ‘People Hold On’. That was the one song of Lisa’s that they didn’t have. That was our bargaining chip in many respects.
Setting up Ninja was an escape route, really. We were in this very legally grey area. When we signed the Arista contract, we had only signed as the artists Coldcut. This was before artists having a raft of different pseudonyms. We managed to get away without any issues as long as we didn’t put out a Coldcut record. That was the one good bit of legalese that we were able to slip in there.
We were aware that dance music artists would record under all sorts of different pseudonyms. That was par for the course. Because it was a dinosaur-like label, that message hadn’t filtered through. Nobody realised that when they went through the contract that we could do that.
When Ninja became successful, they did try and come after us, trying to claim ownership of that [part of the label]. We owed them another record as Coldcut. They held onto that and tried to claim that that record was due when we put one out on Ninja Tune. But we managed to battle our way out of that eventually. It took a long time and we kind of sat it out while working on Ninja and working under different pseudonyms.”
Matt Black: “We still haven’t got all our rights to all our work back.”
Jon More: “We got a good chunk of it back, but not all of it. Arista controls the recording rights, but we got the publishing rights back to everything.”
How important is technology to what you’ve done over the years?
Matt Black: “We have had a certain nose for the way in which technology converged. Like the excitement of being able to make music using a computer. We were really excited that we could do anything with electronic media.
The music has been the vehicle that has actually taken us forward, but it has been partly fuelled by technology and this tide. We can claim to have invented CD+ – which we define as CD plus a bunch of other stuff. You could make a CD that would play music, but it would also have a game on it and interactive visuals. The format of CDs came and went, but the idea was that music could be a lot more than just a set of fixed tracks.
That has been a core idea. I would say it’s technology hacking. We did simple circuit bending to do things that we wanted to do – but the exact technology didn’t exist so stuff had to be adapted. This idea that you could take something out and slot something else in and change the function.”
Would you say your music is the overlap on a Venn diagram of technology, art and politics?
Matt Black: “We are constantly bombarded by media. As Marshall McLuhan said, “All media work us over completely.” When you start to be able to take media, freeze it and re-work it yourself, it’s a kind of defence against just being controlled by external media.
There’s a kind of punk, anarchist, fuck-you-I-want-to-be-in-control-myself attitude. We were excited by that. As you push into it, you find you can do more and more. You can be a pirate TV station. You can make your own videos. You can make your own remixed news.”
Do the artists you sign have to think visually as much as they do musically?
Jon More: “They have a character, that’s what attractive. You have someone like Kid Koala who is actually very artistic. Or people like Mr Scruff.”
Matt Black: “Quite a few of the artists do have a strong visual side. Strictly Kev is a good example. We met Kev through Mixmaster Morris. The idea of ambient music and the idea that a party didn’t have to be about banging beats was gaining traction. Actually you can add other things, have things for people to look at, like artwork.
Kev and his mates were from Camberwell Art School so they were on that tip; art students with a taste in music and putting on parties. It fitted well with us. We needed somebody to take Ninja’s graphic identity on. Kev was the person who understood and loved the music, cutups and DJ-ing, but was also very handy as a graphic artist. He was a major find for the label.”
Jon More: “All of the artists have an interest in the visual side of their work – be that the smallest suggestion on the layout of their album cover to someone like Forest Swords who’s doing a live show with intense visuals.”
The accepted narrative of the internet and the music industry is that labels and artists were totally caught on the hop by Napster in 1999. How aware were you of what was brewing in the 1990s?
Matt Black: “We were well aware of it. The one that really started it was IUMA – the Internet Underground Music Archive. There were bands no one has heard of would start swapping MP3s. I thought it was really interesting.
In our building in Winchester Wharf, Ninja was the first move into this crazy warehouse operated by these two dodgy guys. We got a really good deal in this amazing warehouse that was slowly slipping into the river. These other young companies started moving in as well. One of them got the gig to do the Levi’s website. This was around 1993 or 1994. It was the very early days of the internet and Levi’s paid £20,000 a year to hire them a leased line.
They very generously shared that line with the other companies. They got Ninja Tune on email and wired us up. A guy called Ricky [Adar] had a company called Cerberus Digital Jukebox. I went to a presentation he gave to the industry in our building and a bunch of major label guys were there.
He showed the IUMA and explained about MP3s and said, “This is coming and you better get hip with it otherwise it’s going to be very messy.” No one paid him any attention. No one got it. I remember being there and just being gobsmacked at the vacancy of these guys.”
Jon More: “The major labels do have a protective wall. Like any corporate, they feel that they are so big that none of these things are going to hurt. They can just brush them off as they have the means to do that. But they hadn’t realised how big it was going to be.
The first wave of thought was that it was dangerous for Madonna, but actually it’s publicity for us find it could spread our music to an audience we have never got to before probably.”
Matt Black: “I think we understood that it would be as brilliant as it would be shit – which is what it is.”
How were you fusing technology with your music?
Matt Black: “On Tone Tales From Tomorrow Too, an ambient compilation we made, there is a piece of software called The Tone Tracker. It was a CD+. That was even before Let Us Play! [their fourth album], which had its own CD-ROM with a lot of toys on.
This has a graphical interface were you would grab these little records which were samples from tracks on the CD. There were a number of decks and you could drop the samples on them and mix them. That could be the first software DJ mixer. We never made these into products that sold. They’re more like prototypes of ideas that we thought we were worth putting out there. We continue doing that.
By the mid 1990s, we were still selling vinyl. Ninja was still increasing its hipness and popularity. We were more interested in using the technology so we started the Pirate TV project. That was using the connection we had to stream out live audio-visual jamming from the studio.”
Jon More: “It was the Boiler Room before the Boiler Room was even born.”
Matt Black: “We were using the Levi’s leased line. You couldn’t serve many people on it; so you were restricted to a handful of people. On the line you can only do about 10 or 20 [people]. We were using a cracked version of the RealNetworks server, which was the only streaming thing at the time.
Tim Bran, who was one of our mates from Dreadzone and who came and jammed at Pirate TV, was friends with Radiohead. He went to Oxford and I think he took them a copy of Generator that I had given him. It was Native Instruments’ first product and it became Reaktor after that.
Their [Radiohead’s] sound became a lot more electronic after that. They also liked this idea that they could be in their studio and do a show. They guested on Pirate TV. When they did a show, suddenly there were 300 people listening.
How could that be as we knew we could only serve about 20 people? RealNetworks must have seen what was going on and then start broadcasting it out on their own servers. There was probably a guy there who liked Radiohead! It was a phenomenon – 300 people for a live stream in 1995 or 1996. That could well have been the biggest netcast to date.”
There is currently a lot of hype around AR, VR, AI and voice control. What’s most exciting for you?
Matt Black: “The only view that seems to make any sense is of the yin and the yang balance of opposites and that each thing contains its opposite at that moment. Is the world better now with the internet? It’s better and it’s worse. Things have changed. This is evolution. You better just try and keep balancing because otherwise you will fall off. That’s it; you fall off or you keep balancing.
There was a shooting thrill in being at the cutting edge and getting all this shit to work when it was really hard. But actually I wept blood to get stuff to work. Sometimes I look back and wonder what I was doing [and thinking that] I was wasting my time because now it is so easy to do. But someone had to do it.
It wasn’t very comfortable some of the time, but there was a rush when you got stuff to work. It was satisfying. It kept us advancing. We are still, in some ways, advancing – staggering along. We are still in motion and we’re still just about managing to keep a balance. That’s all there is, really.”
Jon More: “Remarkably, frustrations remain pretty much constant. Like everything, they well up and they subside. There is always a frustration there at the heart of it.”
Matt Black: “I have been interested in AI for almost 50 years – mainly through science fiction but then later as a computer programmer. That whole artificial life thing is very interesting. Game theory and the similarities between genetic code and computer are very interesting.
Like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, I believe that AI is the biggest threat and the biggest benefit to humanity. It’s not being talked about enough. I think it’s very important that artists are involved in the evolution of AI.”
After 30 years, are you terrified of becoming a nostalgia act?
Matt Black: “We are doing a show at the moment that features quite a lot of our hits. There are a bunch of fans out there who want to see it. We are doing shows for them. It’s not just a revival show. We mix it up. We’re doing it in a new way. We are using our own software in the show and we are using Pixi, our video synthesiser; we are using our game Robbery; we are using Ninja Jamm. Has the technology caught up with our ambitions? Nearly!”
Jon More: “It’s not like we’re going to go out on tour with T’Pau, Vanessa Paradis and Bros. That’s not going to happen!”
Matt Black: “We feature bang-up-to-date material and we take old stuff and remix and re-paint it. It’s good to recycle stuff as well.”
Jon More: “We have always been inherently nostalgic.”
Matt Black: “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be! We have actually just released our first ever software product that has made some money. MidiVolve – an AI arpeggiator, inspired by Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians.
It’s wanting to make music like that without having to do the hard work of studying to be a proper composer. It’s a bit of software we released with Ableton. We have actually got our money back and made a few grand out of it. We are finally growing up.
What is music but software? It’s software to entertain people. It’s software that works for you and software that works for a hen night out there dancing around their handbags. Who am I to say that one is better than the other? It’s just ways to interface to the environment.”